By Shannon Bergstrom
In recent years, many people have started to question the way they deal with their waste. Whether it’s people trying to transition to paper drinking straws and bamboo toothbrushes or Instagram influencers fitting a year’s worth of trash into a single mason jar — waste reduction is quickly becoming our priority. So how has the world of finance responded to this emerging point of public interest?
Before we can start unpacking the concept of sustainable finance, we should have a basic understanding of what the zero waste movement is.
How Did the Zero Waste Movement Come About?
We can all admit to being used to bending our environment to our will. That’s nothing new. Humans have been cultivating nature, taking from it, and transforming its gifts into various useful objects since we first developed tools. However, it’s only in the last couple of centuries that our needs have begun to exceed the planet’s capabilities.
In fact, an argument can be made that we have been producing and consuming far more than we have needed. After all, people who lived before the industrial revolutions took place were much more comfortable with taking only as much as they needed from nature. Moreover, they lived simpler and more sustainable lives which naturally resulted in less waste.
But in trying to make our lives more convenient, we have become used to reshaping the world whenever we feel like it. We often send perfectly good pieces of furniture, electronics, and other possessions to landfills as soon as we find more attractive items to replace them with. Even more disturbingly, corporations have enabled our wasteful tendencies by making products that are designed to be thrown away after a certain amount of time.
So we buy our water, coffee, and even produce in plastic packaging and watch the Great Pacific Garbage Patch grow. And if this brief overview of the current situation has upset you — you wouldn’t be the first person that has happened to. After all, that’s how the zero waste movement came about. With that in mind, let’s get into the principles behind the philosophy.
The Principles of the Zero Waste Movement
As we have established, humans are responsible for the waste accumulation on this planet. It’s only fitting that we should be the ones to come up with a way to eliminate it. Unfortunately, most people don’t have the power to sway the waste management policies of companies and countries.
Instead, the most we can do is deal with waste on an individual level. So that’s exactly what the zero waste movement was created for. The trend took off in the 70s when recycling first became popular due to the hard work of environmental activists. During that time, many people emphasized that the responsibility for minimizing waste fell on consumers.
From that point, people started developing personal strategies for dealing with waste. Some did their part by simply not letting produce rot and composting the leftovers. Meanwhile, others focused on avoiding single-use plastics and packaging as a whole. Now, there are entire online communities centered around sharing tips for preventing the accumulation of waste.
It was only a matter of time before these trends made their way into the finance sector, too. But what does an economy that’s focused on sustainability even look like?
A Financial Interpretation of the Zero Waste Movement
At this point, we are all painstakingly aware that the most recent trends in finance are anything but sustainable. Cryptocurrency mining requires an obscene amount of power and thus, CO2 emissions. Of course, the new sustainability trends are slowly putting that straight too, as more people are opting to rely on clean energy sources.
Even so, that’s only a small part of the sustainable shift we’re seeing in the financial sector. Besides, an increasing number of people and entities are looking to revise their investment profiles according to the environmental, social and governance impacts of the companies they’re investing in. That means that companies now have an incentive to introduce sustainable solutions. After all, not doing so can negatively affect their risk and return profile.
So how can businesses implement more sustainable practices? Well, traditionally, the lifespan of a product used to be fairly linear. Companies would take resources from nature, creating CO2 emissions and waste in the process. After delivering their products to stores, people would buy them, only to toss them out a few years later.
But the key to creating a more sustainable business is to make that nature-to-landfill pipeline a closed loop. So rather than having products go to waste, we are creating a more circular economy.
What Is Circular Economy?
Ultimately, circular economy is a repackaged way to introduce old concepts. It allows us to imagine our lives outside of the linear processes of production and consumption. But what does it look like in practice? To answer that question, let’s imagine an old, wobbly chair sitting in the corner of a room, out of sight.
It’s tempting to want to throw the chair out, especially since it’s so wobbly and unsightly. But if we fix the legs and hit it with a few coats of paint, we could learn to love it again. Alternatively, we could sell or donate it for someone else to enjoy — or even recycle it.
Of course, keep in mind that we can implement all of these solutions on a much greater scale too. A business might make its products and packaging from recycled items rather than taking raw material from nature. It’s a win-win scenario for both the planet and the company, which would get that much closer to becoming a prime target for ESG investors.
A Case for Sustainable Finance
Clearly, social trends like the zero waste movement have a considerable influence over the finance sector. In this case, we’re certainly happy about that.
Now, the zero-waste movement at its most extreme advocates for a total reduction of individual people’s waste. However, we find that the philosophy could be even more useful if it informed corporate waste management.
After all, if a company can obtain recycled materials at a lower price point than raw materials, why wouldn’t it do so? If nothing else, sustainably made products tend to attract people who are looking to reduce their consumption. And, if transitioning to a more circular economy allows our planet to recover from decades of unsustainable practices — well, that’ll be a nice bonus!
About the Author
Shannon Bergstrom is a LEED Green Associate, TRUE waste advisor. She currently works at RTS, a tech-driven waste and recycling management company, as a sustainability brand manager. Shannon consults with clients across industries on sustainable waste practices and writes for Zero Waste.